Key explanatory text within the message was encrypted in “aviator acronyms” – “GF,” YGTBSM,” WTFO,” and “HS,” and other coded exclamations were liberally salted throughout the narrative.
The Black Lions of VF-213 were among the first Miramar squadrons to receive the F-14A Tomcat, beginning conversion to it in September 1976, the new F-14 replacing venerable F-4B Phantom II’s. Quickly becoming proficient on their new mount, VF-213 departed for their first cruise as part of CVW-11 in October 1977. This first cruise took place on board the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) and saw VF-213 paired with VF-114 ‘Aardvarks’, a pairing that was to last until the Aardvarks were disestablished in April 1993. According to HOME OF M.A.T.S., after their Kitty Hawk cruise VF-213 and CVW-11 shifted to the USS America (CV-66) and took part in two Mediterranean cruises, one in 1979 and the other in 1981.
During the 1979 cruise John Monroe “Hawk” Smith was the Commanding Officer of VF-213.
John Monroe Smith is a living legend in Naval aviation: an all-American boy living his dream, a dream of becoming the best fighter pilot and carrier aviator in the Navy. He succeeded in being the best in a way that only one with unbridled passion, fierce commitment, boundless energy, unconditional dedication and relentless resolve can experience.
On Aug. 28, 1979 the America steamed around the south end of Sicily, through the strait of Sicily, and then turned to the west toward her last two ports call: Valencia, Spain, for some well-deserved rest time, and then through the strait of Gibraltar to Rota, Spain. From that point, she would head west – bound for home.
As told by Donald Auten in his book Black Lion One: TOPGUN Trailblazer Capt. John Monroe “Hawk” Smith in Command of VF-213, there was limited flying en route to Valencia, but during one night of carrier operations the LSOs highly recommended sending a Black Lion F-14 to the beach. It wasn’t a particularly bad night for Weasel Forchets, but it was his turn in the barrel. In LSO parlance, “he was looking ugly on the ball!”
“He had a hell of a time getting aboard,” Hawk remembers. “No tankers were available and with no indications that his night approaches were improving. He was sent to the nearest suitable bingo field, Palermo, Sicily.”
In an amazing example of everything going wrong that could go wrong, Weasel’s mission adventure unfolds.
Weasel and his RIO landed safely at Palermo, but their Tomcat was loaded with one Sidewinder, a Sparrow, and the world’s most sophisticated and highly classified missile: the AIM-54 Phoenix. They discovered that the pins for the missiles and the magnetic hood for the Sidewinder were not aboard the aircraft. To add to the problem, there were no US military units available to provide security for the aircraft or missiles. The supersecret Phoenix was not something that was left hanging around on an airplane without dedicated, armed security.
The soup thickens!
Armed with pencil flares and shroud cutters, Weasel and his RIO spent the entire night on the flight line guarding their airplane and the Phoenix.
The next morning, Weasel discovered that Palermo had start carts but no JP-5. Weasel passed this information back to the ship. This represented a problem, but Hawk offered a simple solution: VA-95 could launch a KA-6 tanker, have the refueling system checked “sweet” [military aviation jargon to indicate that the tanker package is operating properly and passing gas], then fly to Palermo. Meanwhile, Hawk would fly to Palermo on a HS-12 helo and, with what fuel remained in Weasel’s Tomcat, take off, hit the tanker overhead, and return to the ship with the tanker. Problem solved!
It was a perfectly sound solution and promoted the least chaos. The CAG accepted the plan. The admiral’s chief of staff, rejected it. He had another, slightly more complex plan.
A fuel truck would roll to Palermo and fuel the Tomcat. The ship’s COD would fly a new crew into Palermo with the missile pins and the Sidewinder hood and bring Weasel and his RIO back to the ship. So far so good—but then the plan diverged into an area of many uncertainties. Since America was still trying to out-chop according to the cruise schedule, she steaming west, and no flight operations were scheduled until she completed her port call in Valencia. The replacement Tomcat crew would therefore fly from Palermo to Rota. When the ship pulled out of Valencia and made for open sea, they could recover aboard the ship.
The first part of the plan proceeded without a glitch. A COD flew to Palermo, and Weasel and his RIO were replaced by Tom “Rookie” More and Bob “Ranger” Feist. With the Tomcat refueled, they launched out of Palermo for the long trip to Rota. Meanwhile, CVW-11 staff fired a message to Naval Base Rota, requesting armed Marine security for the Tomcat upon arrival.
Rookie and Ranger arrived at Rota without incident. They installed the missile safety pins and Sidewinder hood and assisted in servicing the aircraft. A young Marine was volunteered as a security guard. When he arrived at the airplane, armed and enthusiastic, Rookie and Ranger explained the significance of the three missiles, especially the big ugly one, the Phoenix. The aircrew departed for the BOQ just as night fell, and, with the Marine watching over their airplane, all was well… for a time.
The early September evenings in the Med couldn’t be considered cold, but the young Marine, taught to “innovate, adapt, overcome” and make best use of available resources, realized it would be far cozier in the cockpit of the F-14 than outside, and from there he reasoned, he could still provide security. There was only one impediment to the plan—gaining access to the cockpit. The resourceful Marine surveyed the outside of the cockpit area discovered a small panel with stenciling. He couldn’t quite make out the words in the poor light but realized it had something to do with the canopy. Not to be thwarted by the details he thought it was the control to raise the canopy—and it was—but only once.
The Marine opened the panel, grasped the handle, and realized it was connected very long lanyard. That should have warned him that it was not the prescribed device to open the canopy. It should have, but it didn’t.
The Marine backed away from the Tomcat, uncoiling the lanyard as he went, farther and farther until he hit the end of the lanyard. An ever-so-slight tug on the handle and, as advertised, the canopy opened.
The explosive cartridge fired and sent thousands of dollars’ worth of canopy twirling end over end, narrowly missing the tail section of the Tomcat.
Message traffic sizzled over the airwaves between Rota, the ship, and Washington, DC. In response to Rota’s message describing the situation, “Marine guard inadvertently jettisoned canopy from VF-213 F-14A. Missiles, AIM-7F (1), AIM-9F (1), and AIM-54 (1), aboard and intact.”
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject and to avoid offending other parties that might be on distribution, key explanatory text within the message was encrypted in “aviator acronyms” – “GF,” YGTBSM,” WTFO,” and “HS,” and other coded exclamations were liberally salted throughout the narrative.
Because a Phoenix missile happened to be on board the Tomcat, the message precedent was elevated to “FLASH,” and that precedence gave it automatic distribution to CNO’s watch team at the National Command Center. There it gained considerably more attention than anyone had anticipated, and also prompted action on a second front. The unencrypted acronyms caught the eye and elevated the angst of National Command Center, which demanded an explanation from the CNO watch team of the unusual and unlisted code acronyms. Try as they might, the watch team could not decipher the code words, so they fired off a tersely message calling for “plain language” wording.
The message was received by the ship’s comm center and immediately routed to the CO of VF-213. There was no way to soft-peddle the wording. The response from America back to CNO and NSC reluctantly explained the codes: “GF”—Great f**k; “YGTBSM”—You’ve got t to be s*****ng me; “WTFO”—What the f**k, over; and “HS”—H**y s**t.
The embarrassment was indescribable and captured far more attention in places high up the military and national chain of command than the actual canopy-jettisoning incident ever would have.
On Sep. 10, America pulled into Rota, Spain, and dropped anchor. The Black Lions’ convertible Tomcat was barged from the beach to the ship and then craned aboard.
“It was a rough and angry sea that day,” Hawk recalls. “And a sad sight to see our Tomcat swaying back and forth under the crane. By this time there wasn’t one thing that could have wrong that hadn’t, and I was fully prepared to watch our Tomcat slip the cables and turn into an artificial reef. I was very relieved, even surprised, when my Tomcat was gently set down on the flight deck! That was one of the first things that hadn’t gone wrong. I just couldn’t believe all the high-level attention this got, but it was just par for the course on this cruise.”
For anyone interested in an unvarnished look at the career of an extraordinary Naval Aviator and fighter pilot, you could not hope to find a story better told than Donald Auten’s Black Lion One. Hawk’s record and exploits are not only legendary and entertaining to read, but provide many memorable lessons in leadership. My only regret in reading Black Lion One is that it ended far too quickly!
According to Schiffer Publishing, this historical biography of John Monroe “Hawk” Smith, Navy fighter pilot, is a gripping account of valor, sacrifice, and adventure during one of the most tumultuous periods in carrier aviation.
– Hawk, having completed a stunning tour as commanding officer of TOPGUN, received orders to a frontline F-14 Tomcat squadron—VF-213, the “Black Lions.”
– Hawk joined the Black Lions prior to their March 1979 deployment. Several critical factors portended to a most arduous workup period and deployment—there were issues lurking. But Hawk was a man who did not shy away from a challenge.
– Soon, the Lions would have opportunities to show their colors.
– These included the first-ever Fighter Derby at NAS Miramar, California—the “World Cup” for naval fighter squadrons, and Constant Peg, a highly classified “Black Program” that exposed aircrews to the capabilities of Soviet fighters.
Aviation enthusiasts and historians will be captivated by the historical fidelity and descriptive air combat engagements, amused by the perpetual mirth of TACAIR aviators, and inspired by lessons of leadership that apply to all walks of life.
Black Lion One: TOPGUN Trailblazer Capt. John Monroe “Hawk” Smith in Command of VF-213 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and Mike Freer – Touchdown-aviation via Wikipedia